By Devin Golden
For two years of their high school basketball careers, they played together as Catamounts.
Now Brandon Painter, Demond Rucker and Rico Mears will do the same as Bobcats.
The three Dalton High School seniors will continue to be teammates after committing to attend Georgia Northwestern Technical College. All three said they made the decision after a visit during spring break. Bobcats coach David Stephenson visited Dalton a couple weeks after the season ended and expressed interest in the three.
“Whenever he came and talked to us all together, we all just thought of the same thing,” Rucker said. “It was a good opportunity.”
The college’s main campus is in Rome, but it has satellites in Whitfield, Gordon, Polk and Walker counties. The three visited the Walker campus in Rock Spring, which is near the Rossville Athletic Complex, where the Bobcats play their home games.
As a Division III member of the National Junior College Athletic Association, GNTC doesn’t offer athletic scholarships, but Stephenson said other types of aid generally result in full scholarships for student-athletes. The Bobcats are in the Georgia Collegiate Athletic Association and finished 8-19 overall and 0-9 in league play this past season.
The roster was comprised of just freshmen and sophomores since the school is a two-year institution and only can award associate degrees.
“I see it as a place to get better for a different college, and I see it as a restart and rebirth to my GPA (grade point average),” Mears said.
The other two agreed, and all three mentioned the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga or Georgia Southern — both members of the Southern Conference and the NCAA’s Division I — as hopeful destinations after a year or two playing for the Bobcats.
“It doesn’t surprise me that these guys are going together to play,” Dalton coach Mike Duffie said. “They’re good friends, have grown up together and play together. ... They’ll have each other for support. It’ll be different and they’ll have challenges, but they’ll have one another for support.
“These guys have goals and that’s why they’re taking this opportunity. Some might not be as excited as they are, but all they wanted was a chance. If you’re not playing somewhere, then you’ve got no chance to show what you can do and improve.”
Stephenson has been the coach at the school for six seasons, since the program’s start, and also serves as athletic director. He said these three are the first from Dalton who will play for GNTC, and Northwest Whitfield center Dustin Stanley, who committed last week to play at the school, is the first Bruin who will do the same.
“I’ve been trying to get established with some of the local schools, and this is a big thing for that,” Stephenson said. “Now coach Duffie knows me and knows what I and we are about, and next time he may give me a call about a player.”
Mears and Rucker have been on the varsity squad for two seasons and Painter for three. Mears, a guard who earned honorable mention the last two seasons on The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Boys Basketball Team, averaged 12.4 points and five rebounds per game this season while making 55 percent of his two-point field goals. He also averaged five assists and three steals. Duffie mentioned his solid mid-range jump shooting and athleticism as strengths and 3-point shooting and ball handling as areas for improvement.
“I think Rico is one of the best on-the-ball defenders I’ve ever coached,” Duffie added. “He has super quickness. As far as the college game, I think he might be the quickest to adapt because he can guard.”
Rucker, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound post and another all-area honorable mention this year, averaged 12.4 points and seven rebounds and shot 62 percent within the 3-point line. Duffie touted his versatility as a smaller post player who can hit jump shots when needed. Both he and Stephenson said Rucker could be a small forward at the collegiate level if he develops a perimeter game.
“In that area, he could be a center,” Stephenson said, “but he’d be very much outweighed and outsized at this level.”
Painter averaged eight points, 1.7 steals and hit 45 3-pointers this year. Duffie said the swingman “can catch and shoot with anybody,” and understands the game well but needs to learn how to create his own shots. Stephenson also touted his toughness.
“Brandon is a guy who struck me as being old school,” Stephenson said. “He’s that tough, gritty guy who will play good defense and dive on the ground. ... One thing we’re looking for this year is grittier or tougher.”
The Cats were Sub-region 7A-3A champions and won 21 games in 2011-2012, including a victory in the opening round of the state tournament. This past season, Dalton won 19 games and once again reached the state tournament.
“That’s 40 wins in two seasons together,” Painter said. “Not bad.”